The Coldest Place: How A Small Minnesota Town Earned the State’s Frigid Title

On February 2, 1996, two Minnesota towns battled to set a new record cold temperature

TOWER, Minn. – 21 years ago, the air temperature in Tower, Minnesota hit a chilly 60 degrees below zero. The town, with a population of 500, nestled in the Northland, is the coldest location based on average winter temperatures east of the Great Plains.

“So here I am, in the coldest place there is in America,” said Randy Semo, owner of The Good Ol’ Days in Tower. “Somebody has to live here, right?”

The bitter cold is normal around here, in fact, on average, it only reaches a high temperature of the freezing point about 18 days the entire winter.

“It normally gets down in the 20’s below zero, it seems like every winter we have a stretch of that,” said Roland Fowler, a cooperative weather observer that records temperatures for the town of Embarrass.

These frigid temperatures are recorded daily by these volunteer cooperative weather observers and relayed to the National Weather Service and across the country.

James Christenson is the former National Weather Service Data Acquisition Programmer for the Northland and received these daily weather readings.

On that record cold day, Christenson said, “We had observers, Rowland up there in Embarrass and we had a lady up there three miles south of Tower, Kathy Hoppla. There was an ongoing, I guess you call it kind of a fun game between those two, because they were always two of the coldest temperature readings.”

The cold spot lies in the Embarrass River Valley near the Laurentian Divide on the Iron Range.

“They are in a lower area, so what happens is, all that cold air just sort of drains into the low spots and that’s where you are going to get your coldest temperatures,” says Carol Christenson with the National Weather Service.

“It’s nothing to get -40 temperatures in the winter,” said Roland Fowler, the Embarrass weather observer, with a smirk across his face.

If you consider those temperatures to be cold, things were about to become even more numbing on the coldest day ever: February 2, 1996.

The weather setup was a huge high pressure system over central Canada, which continuously funneled in arctic, cold air, straight from the North Pole to right over the Northland. The snow depth was over two feet deep, helping temperatures plummet even further.

With clear skies and calm winds from the high pressure, any warmth from the day was able to leave and escape back to the atmosphere.

“It all came together to give us that really, really cold night.” explained Christenson. “Well, we knew probably a record was going to be broken or very close to it. The media frenzy of course was there. Everybody was talking about it”.

It had been cold for a few days before that, with -50 actual temperatures, but the night of February 2nd, the numbers started dropping even more.

“There’s a lot of stories about guys standing outside and living in tents in their sleeping bags,” said Semo. “A lot of tree huggers, if you will, coming up here to do that. They were cold weather campers”.

Fowler says he went out to check on the guys sleeping outside the Timber Hall. “When they pulled them apart, [there] was an inch of frost between the two sleeping bags.”

It was, indeed, a cold night, with a record on the line of -59 degrees set back in 1899 at Leech Lake Dam.

Two Minnesota towns were battling to set a new record cold temperature.

“There’s a weather station just outside of Embarrass, in Tower,” said Christenson. “[Kathy Hoppla] had a house with a little gully down behind the house and that’s where the instruments sat. That morning, the cold air settled down in the little valley and hit 60 below. So that’s how Tower got that crown.”

February 2, 1996, put Tower in national headlines.

The Minnesota state record-low temperature was broken at 9:10 a.m. with a -60 degree temperature recorded.

“It was just a cold day for everybody,” said Semo. “What I remember most was a lot of TV people around, guys driving nails with bananas.”

People living in the small town of Tower enjoyed their record setting day.

“We threw water in the air and ice crystals came down,” said Lorrie Meskill, a resident of Tower. “We just did it once, it was really cold out.”

Kids celebrated, too, as schools were forced to close from the cold.

“It was kind of odd because during the week it was 40 to 50 degrees below and they still had school,” said Randall Johnson, the City of Tower’s maintenance supervisor. “Not until it went 60 degrees below did they cancel school. It was so very cold that you really couldn’t be outside for more than a couple minutes if your face wasn’t covered.”

Frozen and bursting pipes were also a big concern when temperatures dropped so low.

“We got called out that day to turn the water off and we had to locate the water shut off in the yard,” Johnson “[It] was under about a five foot high snow bank. We moved it with the loader and we dug into the ground, which was about as soft as a 4th of July day.  Hard to believe at 60 below zero.”

As Tower continued to consider the battle of the cold bitter sweet, the National Weather Service was busy. “It’s not cut and dry sometimes,” said Christenson. “The state record was not declared cut and dry that day, so there was still some suspense going if it was going to be a record or not.”

The neighboring town, Embarrass, was the cold spot competition that also sits in the valley.

“So all of the people were heading up to Embarrass, that’s the historically cold spot,” said Semo. “One was always trying to beat the other.

All signs pointed to Embarrass taking the record cold title, until Fowler’s thermometer broke.

“He had a mercury thermometer and it broke, so he was out of the game,” explained Christenson.

The thermometer broke at -52 degrees, because the mercury inside separated due to the cold temperatures.

“It quit, you know, there was just nothing on it until it warmed back up to 50 below,” said Fowler. “Then it came back on. We definitely were the coldest that morning though.”

An unofficial thermometer Fowler had read –64 degrees  that same morning. “The thermometers got to be in that box, if it’s not, it’s not an official temperature,” said Christenson.

The box is called a cotton region shelter. It’s white in color and off of the ground. This is important because it calculates a real atmospheric temperature without sun rays, ground heat and wind affecting it. However, Randy’s back up thermometer wasn’t in the official box.

“[That temperature] wasn’t considered official, so Tower was the winner that day,” said Christenson.

Fowler and the town of Embarrass feel otherwise. “I felt kind of upset because I knew we’d gotten it,” he said. He had another thermometer but it only went to 50 degrees below zero and that wasn’t enough.

“Now I have a thermometer that goes to 120 degrees below zero,” laughed Fowler. “Not that I ever want to see it get that cold.”

Despite the cross town rivalry, this coldest place still shares the many memories made that day.

“People are still interested in knowing how cold it was and what it felt like, so it’s still in people’s minds,” explained Christenson.

“I guess if you are going to be known for something, then that’s not a bad thing I guess,” said Johnson. “It shows how hearty we are.”

So, why do these people continue to live in the coldest place?

“Well, I just consider it my home and I know it’s going to get cold, said Fowler. “We know we’re going to deal with it. So it goes by every winter and spring comes and you carry on”

“Small town living, you can’t beat it,” said Johnson. “I loved raising my family here, I love the people of this city, I love working for this city.”

“Well, eventually I’d like to move somewhere warmer,” said Semo. “but we do hold the record. Tower, Minnesota. Sorry Embarrass, that’s just the way it is.”

On that same cold day of February 2, 1996, the city of Duluth dropped down to only -39 degrees, due to the warm lake. Only five days later, the Northland warmed up into the mid 40s.

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